The view from Afghanistan's fields

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January 5, 2012 - 6:00pm

The Nebraska National Guard is helping farmers in Afghanistan learn more effective agriculture techniques. The Guard has had some help from Vaughn Hammond, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension educator. Hammond is a specialist in growing small fruits and market vegetables and just returned from Gardez City in eastern Afghanistan.

Clay Masters sat down with Hammond for this Q&A while he was on a brief home visit. To listen to the full interview, click on the audio player above.
 



Even planting - for us now it's not uncommon for us to see corn being planted in April. I mean, everybody is, "Boom, we've got to be in the field immediately." For them, if it happens, it happens, if it doesn't - so be it. So showing them how to plan beyond three or four days has been a major task.

MASTERS: Even something as basic as planting in rows, it sounds like.

HAMMOND: Absolutely. They traditionally have broadcast planted everything corn, soybeans, wheat, their garden crops, their vegetable crops, everything is broadcast planted. Just showing them that they can increase production by planting corn in rows and proper spacing for nutrition water aspects of that corn plant is completely foreign to them.

They will not switch over immediately, by any way shape or form. We have to show them a very little piece of success in order for them to see, and then success for two or three years, and then maybe they'll adopt it.

MASTERS:Can you walk me through a day in the life over there in what you were doing day to day?

HAMMOND: Over there we say that every day is Groundhog Day, because every day is the same in many ways, shapes and forms. The best way we can tell what day it is is by what's being served in the chow line because that's regimented.

Days are one of two things. We either have meetings on the Forward Operating Base (FOB) Gardez. At the FOB the day starts about 9:00 a.m., we'll start to have people come in. Whether it be their extension agents, association presidents or community business leaders, (they) come in for meetings to start possibly planning for a future project. Generally, we have two or three meetings a day with these local folks.

In order for them to come in, they have to go through security. We have to go up and walk them through security. We're a non-driving base, so everything has to be done by foot, so there's about four to five miles of walking a day just getting people in and out. Get them through security, come in and sit down do the meetings. All of our meetings include an interpreter and whoever's working on the project.

The project we're working on right now, were trying to get seed for greenhouse production. We recently completed a greenhouse at a (demonstration) farm we're working on. Those meetings have been working with the DAIL, who is the lead agriculture government leader within the province. DAIL stands for Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, so he is responsible for provinces and agriculture.

(Meetings are often) his workers coming in requesting the seeds, telling us what seeds they want, and then we negotiate with them as far as showing them what numbers they need and what varieties. Variety is a foreign concept to them. We asked them "What varieties do you plant?" Doesn't matter if its corn, wheat, soybeans, cucumbers, tomatoes, their response is "Local." That means they've collected the seed from the year before and the year before and the year before.

It's very difficult to have those meetings last more than an hour to an hour and a half, because everybody is completely taxed -- mentally taxed through the interpretation process. Of course we share tea -- and again this Afghan courtesy, anytime we go to meetings they provide us tea and some little snacks of some sort and that is expected of us also. Maybe a quarter of the meeting is directed towards niceties, conversations -- it's not all business, that's not how they do things. The first 15 to 20 minutes is just "How's your family?" Even though you may have just seen them the day before, they still want to know how your family's doing, if they're healthy. And then you get into business.

If we go off the FOB it's a week planning to do that. That takes armored vehicles, 28 security personnel. We go out in four or five vehicles, full body armor. It's a whole different situation. Those last at the most two hours. If we're really some place we feel is secure it may last as long as four, but generally it's a two hour visit.

MASTERS: You're going back over there next week. With the timeline of withdrawing U.S. Afghan forces, how much can be done to make any difference to this country's agriculture infrastructure?

HAMMOND: Quite a lot because there's so much to actually do. If we can simply teach them about reintroducing organic matter into the soils, drip irrigation, incorporating manure into the soils, increasing soil fertility, using varieties, teaching them about row planting instead of broadcasting, raised beds - these things we consider basic agriculture in many ways. If we can just show them the benefits in the next three or four years, whatever it ends up being, it will make huge inroads. And if we can show them success for a couple years, hopefully they will carry that on to whatever happens in the future.

MASTERS: Are the farmers are responsive to this?

HAMMOND: Mostly. There's still that roadblock of, "My father did it this way, my grandfather did, his father did it." It's getting beyond the pridefulness of the people, because they are very proud people. Once they see the successes and see an ear of corn that's longer than 4 inches, then they say Ah-ha maybe this will work.

MASTERS: And they're very skeptic of pesticides and anything of that nature?

HAMMOND: It's a very interesting concept. They do not want to use herbicides, insecticides, any type of pesticides if at all possible. They want to do it the organic way, which is something that is becoming more and more popular in the United States, (that's) where they want to start now. So that's an interesting concept to me. Even though they're behind us in technology, in some ways, in some circles they're ahead of us in other ways.

MASTERS: And that's still part of the family tradition, planting organically.

HAMMOND: They do not fertilize. Their only access to fertilizer, for the most part because they are so poor, is animal manure. Then the problem with that they use that as a fuel source, so they don't use it (for agriculture.) It is more important to stay warm and cook their food, so they don't incorporate it, so the soil structure is very poor.

MASTERS: They don't have an equivalent of the USDA checking out food before it's sold, do they?

HAMMOND: No they, do not. Food safety is something they could use a lot of help with. When they butcher, the butchering takes place before dawn, before 4:00 in the morning. There is no refrigeration and as soon as that meat is slaughtered it goes to the marketplace and hangs in open air. As people buy it they slice it off, cut it off, and sell it by the kilo. So, nothing refrigerated, it goes home and there's no refrigeration at home. This goes back to (there being) very little electricity and lack of funds to maintain.

MASTERS: Are you hoping to implement these ideas with individual farmers? How are you really making the difference?

HAMMOND: Teaching the powers that be, whether (they be) government, development center, the Gardez Garden Growers association. To teach those folks that then realize the importance of progression and then show their farmers they're working with these methods.

Discussion

 

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